A Venetian Rhapsody

(Posing on a bridge across one of the prettiest canals in Venice)

Previous Memories of Venice:

Every time I return to Venice, I realize that it is one of my favorite places on earth. My mind always goes back to my first entry into the city, 21 years ago, when having had my backpack containing my camera stolen in Amsterdam, I had been sad and depressed for a whole week. Then, I arrived in Venice and my spirits lifted as if by magic. I can remember the therapeutic effect the city had on me as I walked with my French friend Chantal with whom I had traveled through a part of Western Europe by Eurail. Admonishing myself for having allowed a week to go by while I grieved for my lost belongings, I told myself to rejoice in the beauty of the city and its uniqueness. And so it is always with a sense of hope and optimism that I return to this Medieval city of a million canals.

Then, five years ago, Llew, Chriselle and I had stopped briefly in Venice just so that I could show them this city that I so adore. Unfortunately, it was the middle of January and dreadfully cold—indeed it was the coldest day in the Veneto in 25 years– and Chriselle was freezing. After we had taken the mandatory tour of the Doges Palace (above left), she cocooned herself in McDonald’s, the only place where she could sit nursing a hot chocolate and writing in her journal as she couldn’t face the thought of roaming on the icy streets–no matter how gorgeous the architecture– in those sub-zero temperatures. I recall how desperate gondoliers came right up to us, willing to lower their prices considerably in order to attract a few passenger that day. Alas, they had absolutely no takers and their lovely vessels idled in the canals as we burrowed lower into our coats.

Return to Venice:

This time round, I was delighted to see the sun rise on the Grand Canal (left), for Amy and I had arrived in the city on the Night Train from Naples at the crack of dawn at 5.15 am to be precise. Though neither of us had slept a wink despite the fact that we had booked a couchette—or bed for the night—a caffe latte at the cafeteria which opened at 6.05 am saw us nursing the comforting drink in our hands and awaiting the opening of the vaporetto (water-bus) ticket kiosks right outside the main station of Santa Lucia or Ferrovia as it is known. When the ticket clerk did make an appearance, we bought a 72 hour or three day pass for 31 Euros which allows unlimited use of the vaporetto for that length of time. This proved invaluable as our lodgings were on the island of Guidecca and I happened to be attending a conference that week on the remote island of San Servolo which could only be reached by vaporetto and since Amy and I love glass jewelry so much, we made not one but two trips to the Island of Murano where the glass works are located—not to mention the fact that we also sailed to the famous Lido, the island that houses the Beach resort at which the rich and famous congregate. Overall, that was probably the best 31 Euros we spent on our entire travels in Italy as it made our lives very simple indeed. It wasn’t long before Amy mastered the map of the water-bus routes as well as their timings and was reading timetables like a pro.

Residing on Guidecca:

The island of Guidecca (left) is largely empty, save for a few local people who actually make their homes there. We had rented accommodation at the Junghans Residenze which contained very comfortable en suite double rooms and came with the comforts of a 24 hour security and concierge service. After taking a quick nap, we set out that day to discover Venice and to chalk out our plans for exploring the city. What a relief it was, after braving the tornado on the ferry to Capri and surviving the downpour in Naples to see sunshine streaming through our windows. Enticed by the light to investigate our view, we were thrilled that it overlooked a charming cobbled square that was reached across a narrow canal via a picturesque bridge (on which Amy poses below).





Right opposite our room was a red-brick colored house (above left) with its own enclosed courtyard garden over whose walls fragrant jasmine in full bloom tumbled, scenting the entire square (above right). It seemed to greet us each day as we made our way past the square to arrive at the main canal stop at Palanca.




(Vignettes of the participants at the EACLALS Triennial Convention–Mahnaz, Minu and Rochelle at Venice International University on the island of San Servolo)





(Meenakshi Mukherjee, Rochelle and Nandita Ghosh–left–and Rochelle with old Oxford friend Annalisa Oboe–right–at the EACLALS Triennial Convention Dinner-Dance)

The Basilica of San Marco:

There are two Must See-Must Do Items on the list of any first-time tourist to Venice—The Doges’ (or Ducal) Palace and the Basilica of San Marco (left)–St. Mark being the patron saint of Venice). Since Llew, Chriselle and I had taken the tour of the Palace, just five years ago, and I remembered almost everything rather clearly, I told Amy to take the tour on her own when I was busy at the EACLALS Trienniale Conference on San Servolo. Instead, joined by my friend and NYU colleague Mahnaz, who was also attending the conference, we decided to explore the Basilica. I had seen it 20 years ago, but remembered almost nothing and, five years ago, when I was last there, Mass was in progress when we arrived and visitors had been prohibited from entering the church.

A queue had already formed at 9.10 am when we arrived there and right before my eyes, it stretched all the way to the Grand Canal in a matter of minutes. Standing in it for about half an hour gave me the opportunity to study the exterior in minute detail and to marvel at the confection of elaborate artistry that it is all about. Above the main door is a mosaic of the Ascension of Christ (left) in all His glory while right next to it is one of the Body of St. Mark being rescued from Alexandria and brought to Venice. Four giant horses, replicas of the gilded bronze originals, tower above the façade, a statue of St. Mark flanked by angels crowns the main dome and Romanesque carvings adorn the main pillars at the front entrance. It is truly one of the most decorative of Western churches and one can gaze at it for at least an hour and keep noticing new elements at which to marvel.

Exploring the Basilica of St. Mark:
At 9.30, the line began moving slowly and we were able to enter to view the stunning mosaic work on the walls and ceiling. The first thing that occurs to the visitor on beholding the interior is that it is different from anything one has seen in any other Italian church. And quite rightly—for the Basilica is designed in true Byzantine style with ornamental cupola and five domes, the interior of each being covered by glimmering gold mosaic pieces that depict scenes from the Bible. Of these, the most famous are the domes featuring the Ascension and the Pentecost. These fabulous mosaics were executed in the 12th century, at a time when the influence of Byzantium extended throughout the Western world. I could just imagine how they must glitter whether lit by the softness of candlelight or the more powerful reflections of the grand chandeliers that adorn the church.
When the eye has stopped admiring the ceiling, one can turn one’s attention downwards to the flooring or what is referred to in art books as the ‘pavement’. It is hard to say which one of the two elements is more awesome—the ceiling or the pavement. The latter is crafted entirely of variegated marble in what is called the Pietra Dura design forming a kind of grand Oriental carpet in stone. In small pieces and in large expanses, this inlaid marble and the effect it produces is little short of spectacular.
A tour of the church takes the visitors to the various chapels or altars featuring, among other patron saints of Italy, the Madonna di Nicopeia, a Byzantine icon that is one of Italy’s most revered images.

The Splendor of the Pala D’Oro:

However, it is behind the Baldacchino or altar canopy that is composed of four finely carved alabaster columns that the greatest sight in Venice is concealed. In order to view this, the visitor is asked to pay 2 Euros—certainly the most worthwhile item on which to spend a couple of bucks. This is the Pala D’Oro or Curtain of Gold. This altarpiece created by medieval goldsmiths in the 10th century is studded with a total of 2,000 precious and semi-precious gems that encircle the enameled portraits of a multitude of saints set into at least 250 panels. I found it impossible to take my eyes away from this treasure and would rank it as among the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. Not only is it a remarkable manifestation of the great wealth of the Doges (or Venetian rulers) but it is an extraordinary work of metallic craftsmanship the likes of which cannot easily be reproduced today.
Then, we made our way to the Treasury (paying another 3 Euros), a series of three small rooms that are crammed with the loot plundered from Byzantium (later called Constantinople and now called Istanbul) in the year 1204 which is usually referred to as the most successful of the Crusades. Crucibles, bowls, candlesticks, drinking cups, bookstands, and other precious items make it impossible to place a value on the plunder in today’s market. In another room are relics and receptacles to house them—bones and teeth and hair of Christians revered for their devotion to their faith, many of whom were subsequently canonized as saints. The enormous interest contained within the Basilica makes it necessary to allot at least two hours to view all its treasures at leisure.

Piazza San Marco:

Emerging into the bright sunlight of the morning about 11. 30 am, we surveyed the grandeur of the Piazza San Marco which is one of Europe’s greatest squares—not only in terms of its astounding size, but for the architectural elements and its design. Walking under the columned arcades that surround the square, we (Mahnaz, Amy and I–left) took in the luxury goods offered by the upscale stores (jewelry made of gold and precious stones, Murano glassware, uniquely designed clothing and footwear) and the classical music emerging from a small group of chamber musicians who played Mozart for our listening pleasure. Despite the fact that the sun could not have been brighter, the skies blues and the water in the canal more sparkling in shades of aquamarine blue, it was freezing and we were grateful for the hot chocolate we picked up from a local café.

Cruising on the Grand Canal:

(The Pallazzos seen on our cruise along the Grand Canal showed a variety of architectural styles)

Then we were heading on foot towards the Rialto Bridge (left) to board the vaporetto that would take us on a leisurely cruise along the Grand Canal allowing us to admire the intricate architectural details of the many sprawling palazzos (palaces) that line its banks. Equipped with our DK Eye Witness guidebook that provided information on each of them, Amy and I cruised along taking in the sights offered by such famous ones as Ca’ Rezonnico, once home of poet Robert Browning, Palazzo Grassi, Palazzo Barbaro where novelist Henry James wrote The Aspern PapersPalazzo Dario with its beautiful colored marbles, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni where the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim had once lived (now converted into a museum housing the Guggenheim Collection) and Palazzo Gritti-Pisani, now a deluxe hotel.

At each water ‘bus-stop’, passengers embarked and alighted allowing opportunities to take pictures galore on what was a particularly clear day. When the vaporetto arrived at the mouth of the Grand Canal near the huge Church of Santa Maria del Salute with its imposing dome that dominates the city’s skyline, it turned around and went back the way it had arrived. Amy and I stayed on past the dramatically lovely Rialto Bridge seeing more wonderful palazzos, most of which have been converted into museums and art galleries. I cannot recommend this enough as a way to get oriented to the city and, if one’s stay is short, to see as much as possible in such a brief time-span.
Then, we headed on foot to see the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frati (usually known simply as ‘Frati’) which contains some amazing sculpture and paintings. Having arrived at its entrance, I realized that I had seen it five years ago and declined to explore it again. Instead, Amy and I headed back to the Rialto Bridge to meet up with Mahnaz who had spent the morning at the Palazzo Grassi where a special exhibition on ‘Rome and the Barbarians’ was being held. After we said our fond goodbyes to Mahnaz who was returning to Florence that evening, Amy and I boarded a vaporetto to the Island of Murano as we had been tempted throughout our stay by the mouthwatering glass jewelry to be found in every second shop front in Venice.

Venetian Art in the Accademia:
The next day dawned dreadfully wet and freezing cold and was the perfect kind in which to visit a museum. After a quick breakfast of hot chocolate and a chocolate brioche, we headed towards the Accademia di Belle Arte (known in short as the Accademia) which houses the finest collection of Venetian art in the world. Having arrived there about 9.15 am, we pretty much had the museum to ourselves for the first couple of hours which permitted us to browse through the Highlights using our guidebooks and the museum notes available in each room. Happily, we discovered that entrance to the museum is free of charge—a welcome change after all the money we’d been doling out to see the sights.

We spent the next two hours enthralled by the fabulous works of art. Though this museum is small, the collection is stunning, displaying works by artists I had not seen anywhere else. Take the Madonnas, for instance, by Giovanni Bellini, of which there were at least eight in the museum, all grouped together in one room. They were just unbelievable in their vividness of color and detail. What is remarkable is that so much money has been spent, in recent years, to clean and restore these works and we felt so fortunate to see them as they glinted and gleamed in the excellent lighting of the various galleries. The most dominant painting in this museum is Paolo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi which is so monumental that it entirely covers one wall in a long and palatial gallery. Other surprises in store for me were the marvelous collection of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio presenting processional scenes associated with the Legend of St. Ursula and with the miracles associated with the Relics of the True Cross. Particularly amazing was the one featuring the procession in Piazza San Marco. Having visited it the previous day, I could appreciate the depth of detail that made up the scene.
Of course, the most famous of the works in the Accademia is The Tempest by Giorgione which is considered one of the finest early landscapes. Though this is a rather small painting, it does attract a great deal of attention. Marina Vaizey includes it among her 100 Masterpieces of Art.
In search of yet another one of Vaizey’s masterpieces, Amy and I then made our way to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to see the cycle of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio depicting the lives of Saints George, Jerome and Augustine. For 3 Euros, visitors are allowed into the tiny church that sits on the banks of a narrow canal. Executed between 1503 and 1508, they exhibit the great talents of Carpaccio. Of these, the last painting of St. Augustine in his Study is the masterpiece that Vaizey picked for her book. A little-known painting, it is quite remarkable for the realism with which the saint who is known for his erudition as “The Doctor of the Church”, is presented at work when he sees a vision of St. Jerome that he interprets as informing him of the exact moment of the saint’s martyrdom.

Bird’s Eye Views of Venice:

The next day, we made a bee-line for the Campanile at San Marco hoping to get some good pictures from the top of the bell-tower. To our astonishment, we found that there was no line and with a takeaway breakfast in our hands, we paid the 8 Euros that got us to the observation deck, thankfully, not by climbing 500 steps but in an elevator! What a relief that was!

The sun was hidden that morning under an overcast sky which really provided ideal lighting conditions for taking pictures and I clicked a great many. I love views of the world from hundreds of feet up in the air (left) and when I saw the domes of the Basilica, the Grand Canal as it winds its way to the sea, the grand Palladian Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, I realized how wealthy this city once was and how glorious is the legacy it has left the world.

Peggy Guggenheim’s Collection:

Then, we were down on Mother Earth again, making our way through a winding maze of narrow streets, picturesque canals and romantic bridges to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum which houses her personal collection of Modern Art in an unfinished palazzo on the Grand Canal that is only one-storey high (left) . Anyone who has heard the name Peggy Guggenheim knows that she was a flamboyant American woman who made Venice her home, encouraged and bought the works of abstract artists at a time when they were unknown to the rest of the world, displayed them in her Venetian palazzo on the water where she often invited them for visits to discuss their work and their vision. Peggy’s own daughter Pegeen Vail died at 24, a budding artist herself, and the home displays some of her early work.

As we joined the vast numbers of art lovers who make a pilgrimage to the Guggenheim home each day, we had the chance to do three things: see one of the foremost private collections of Modern Art in the world, stroll through a real Venetian palazzo (left) to get a glimpse of it on the inside and see the Grand Canal from a completely different perspective—from a patio on its banks. After paying the 10 Euro entry fee that came with a plan of the house (the place is run entirely by American interns studying at Venice’s many art schools), we toured the beautiful gardens with their impressive collection of sculpture by Giacometti, Brancussi and Henry Moore, among others.

Then, we entered the house and walked from one room to the next taking in the canvasses on the wall by Picasso and Braque, Miro, Mondrian, Chagall, Dali, Leger, Kandinsky and several other iconic names from the twentieth century art world. I was charmed to see that while Guggenheim’s taste in art was modern and abstract, her taste in furniture was antique. Her dining table and chairs, for instance, date from the Medieval period and contrasted beautifully with the Picassos and Duchamps that graced the walls.

Outside on the patio that overlooked the Grand Canal was one of the collection’s most notorious works, Marino Marini’s Angelo delle Citta (Angel of the Citadel–(left), which portrays an ecstatic young man on a horse overlooking the water. I could not stop taking pictures of the Canal from the patio for it did present one of the most charming vignettes of Venice that I had seen so far—in a city in which I was charmed at every street corner!

A pair of ancient sculpted horses decorated the patio (left) and were another contrast to the Abstract sculpture seen indoors, such as Brancussi’s Bird in Space.
But perhaps what Amy and I found most interesting about the museum was something that is barely talked about at all—the amazing collection of black and white pictures on the walls of the cafeteria. Had we not stopped there for a coffee, we would never have seen these interesting groups of twentieth century artists who met at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (as the Guggenheim palazzo was known) for frequent tete-a-tetes, thanks to the sponsorship of their generous patroness. I would heartily recommend that all visitors to the museum even remotely interested in the history of modern art visit this space and spend a few moments in quiet contemplation as they survey beautifully candid pictures of some of the most gigantic artists of our time.

The gardens also houses a small memorial to Peggy Guggenheim who was buried in the grounds alongside her beloved pet dogs whose names are carefully carved on the memorial stone embedded in the wall (left) . On an Italian trip that had allowed us to study a surfeit of Medieval and Renaissance works, it was almost a relief to come upon the Abstract Art collection of this eccentric American woman who brought a splash of flamboyance to the Grand Canal with her larger-than-life size personality and her defiant taste in the works of contemporary masters.

Sailing to the Lido:

That afternoon, we returned to Murano to spend more leisurely hours among its breathtaking glass treasures. Then, with the evening still ahead of us and night having fallen over the city, we decided to take the vaporetto to visit the Lido, most famous among the islands for its beaches.
In all of Italy, nothing could have been to us more disappointing. When we alighted from the vaporetto, we walked along a glitzy promenade towards the beach made famous by Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice. The road was lined with shops serving boutique-style clothing and designer merchandise but with none of the classiness that we had seen in Lucca or Sorrento or Capri. Everything somehow seemed crass. All display signs and prices were in English. Everywhere we looked were groups of loud Americans making a spectacle of themselves. Even at the gelateria which, apparently, caters to this moneyed clientele, Americans crowded around, laughing boisterously and bringing home to us with an unpleasant rudeness the fact that after two weeks of traveling in the country, we had left Italy behind us and arrived in some ritzy Floridian resort such as Palm Beach or Naples. We had spent less than an hour in this place, in which the appearance of cars on the street (the Lido is the only Venetian island on which cars are allowed to ply) made us long for the medieval quaintness of San Marco and Guidecca.
Amy said, “Ok, that’s it. Let’s go back to Italy”. We couldn’t get away from there soon enough. So, I guess, I need to ask myself what all the fuss is about. Having actually gone to the Lido, I must say I was not the slightest bit impressed and should I want to see and experience what I did there, I know that all I have to do is go to Atlantic City or any one of the beach resorts on the Atlantic seaboard in the USA!
Sailing to Murano:

The island of Murano has far more interest than does the Lido. It is not far away from the island of San Marco, as the crow flies. But when one takes the vaporetto, it is a long journey indeed taking more than a hour to get there. By the time we disembarked, most of the day’s crowds were wending their way back to the main island. Shops had almost ended their sales for the day. This allowed us to admire the environs of Murano and to resolve to return on another day when we could allow ourselves the luxury of more time to admire the glass jewelry.

Despite the fact that our forays into the stores were hurried, I managed to find myself the most gorgeous glass necklace made of handblown beads. The aquamarine colors of the beads reminded me so much of the dazzling blue of the water in the canals and I felt that I simply had to have it. Alternating with white beads, the insides of which were filled with pure gold leaf, I found the necklace simply mesmerizing. However, since it was a pricey buy, I decided to sleep on the purchase. If I still felt as if I wanted to buy it the next day, I would. If not, well…perhaps it was not meant to be mine.

When we returned to Murano, the next day, the island was more crowded. Business was brisk in the stores as people succumbed to the enticements offered by a craft form that has existed on the island since the Middle Ages. In fact, Murano is so reputed for its glass works and foundries that demonstrations take place all day and visitors can actually see the techniques that go into the making of the masterpieces. While Amy and I zeroed in on the jewelry, whole sets of glasses in jewel colors (ruby red and emerald green, for instance, that cost hundreds of dollars), animals and birds fashioned in designs that include gold dust are displayed superbly on the shelves of the many showrooms. There is also a Museum of glassware containing glass objects that go back to Etruscan times. The artistry and craftsmanship involved in the design and execution of really delicate pieces of glass can best be appreciated when one sees the glassblowers in action working with material that is heated to thousands of degrees and cooled quickly.
Needless to say, I made a beeline to my jewelry store to see if the aquamarine necklace was still available for I had been thinking of it all night and decided that I must have it, after all. How delighted I was to see it awaiting my attention and, within minutes, it was all wrapped up and I was carrying it home with me—truly one of the fondest purchases I made on the trip.
Murano will also remain in my memory as a quiet and serene island, full of charming canal banks and interesting stores.

Goodbye to Venice:

Before we returned to Guidecca where we called it a night, we did make sure we stopped brieflyat Gelateria Nico at San Zaccaria to buy ourselves gelato which is reputedly the best in Venice–and it was most certainly a reputation that is well-deserved. We felt sorry that our Venetian rhapsody had come to an end.

Venice is so utterly glorious a city that it is hard to express how easily it can find a place in the coldest of hearts. So unusual in its layout, so unique in the architectural vision which has constructed the city around a series of canals and lagoons, so ingenious in the manner in which normal, non-tourist life seems to continue each day—imagine going to work daily in a water-bus—this city’s future can only be guessed. Against the soothsayers who predict that it will, one day, cease to exist (for it is apparently sinking into the ocean) are the optimists who believe that nothing so beautiful can just perish from the earth.
I was glad that I had the chance to experience Venice at leisure. None of my previous hurried visits to the city allowed me to truly appreciate its intricacies.

This time round, though I did not tour the Doges Palace, I did examine the building’s exterior, took , took the mandatory picture with the Bridge of Sighs (right) in the background and the one of the Drunken Noah lolling around one of the corners, carved in stone (left).

Of all the cities in the world, this one can be explored entirely on your own two feet. Be prepared to get lost frequently, to consult your map at every street corner, to find yourself exhausted from all the miles you will walk without even knowing it and for the fact that you will make slow progress as you pause every few seconds to admire a balcony here or a bridge there.

To follow Amy and me on the last and final leg of our travels in Padua, Italy, please click on the link below.

Pilgrimage to Padua 

Bon Voyage!


Come Back to Sorrento

(At Piazza Tasso in the heart of the chic city of Sorrento)

We had ear marked the next day for an exploration of the famous Amalfi Coast and the town of Positano. After breakfast, we discovered that the rains hadn’t abated one jot and another soaking day lay ahead of us. Refusing to be discouraged, we hurried off to the train station to catch the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento from where we hoped to catch the SITA bus to Positano which is supposedly the prettiest town on the Amalfi Coast. The journey seemed to drag on. Easter Monday is also a public holiday in Italy and the train was full of families and teenagers looking for a day on the town.
At Sorrrento station, we found that the SITA buses were plying despite the holiday. Purchasing our round-trip tickets for 6 Euros each, we hurried towards a café to buy ourselves a badly-needed hot chocolate. With our fingers warmed and the rain having let up, we walked towards Piazza Tasso to get a taste of the lovely town that has been immortalized in the song  Come Back to Sorrento.

And I could see why. Like Capri, Sorrento, during the summer, is mobbed by visitors who seek its plush air and gaily festooned shops that sell all manner of fancy goods. Boutiques hawking designer clothes, jewelry and bags made even window-shopping a lovely past-time.

The Square is dominated by the sculpture of a saint and the wisteria-clad patios of the Hotel Albergo Vittoria that cover the pink walled structure create a wonderfully refreshing vista (left).

One side of the piazza had a ledge that overlooks a deep gorge (left) which conceals a road that plies down to the sea. The streets radiate from out of this main square and seem to go far into the distance. On this public holiday, there were crowds everywhere bringing a vibrant energy to the area.

We did not have the chance to linger too long, however, as we were determined not to miss the bus to Sorrento. Hordes of people had gathered in the time that we had spent browsing through the town and everyone intended to board that bus. We were pleased that we had booked our tickets in advance and found ourselves seated right in the front of the bus allowing us sweeping views of the lovely hilly landscape.

The Stunning Amalfi Coast:
The Amalfi Coast came into view once we left the chaos of the traffic of Sorrento city behind. And I could see immediately why it is considered one of the world’s loveliest coastal drives. At each sharp hairpin bend and turn, your heart leaps at the sight of the emerald green hills that dip down sharply to the turquoise sea. Because the rain obscured the clarity of our views, we were forced to make do with vistas that were only half as good as they are in the best of weather. Despite that, I took many picture hoping to do the scenery justice—only to find that they came out dreadful. About an hour later, we were at the very pinnacle of the town of Positano and I can say that my very first reaction to it was one of deep wonderment.

To Follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels to the Amalfi Coast and Positano, please click on the link below.

Amalfi Coast and Positano

Bon Voyage!



Amalfi Coast and Positano

(Posing on the hills of the Amalfi Coastline with the stunning town of Positano in the background)

Positano is poised on a tall mountain that plunges directly into the sea pausing briefly along a sandy beach called Spriagga. The whole town, therefore, sits in tiers with the most tourist-inhabited areas set down at the waterfront. We hopped off our bus at the top of the mountain with the aim of making our way down to the town’s base but wondering all the while just how we would reach down there. Then, a friendly local passer-by told us how to go about descending to the beach. “Look”, he said, “for steps. When you see them, just take them and they will lead you downwards”.

Taking his advice, we trekked lower and within five minutes found a narrow sweep of stairs crammed between two homes. The stairs led us ever downwards, just as he said they would (left). Our progress to the bottom was slow as we couldn’t help but stop frequently to admire the views and pose for pictures. From every angle, the town is enchanting.

Positano’s structures are flat-roofed and painted in mouthwatering gelato shades of strawberry pink, pale peach, creamy ivory and peppermint green. As the stairs wound along rustic homes, none in immaculate condition by any means, we passed by wrought-iron lampposts and tiny balconies spilling forth a profusion of spring flowers.

Dominating the base of the town is the piazza that is the location for its landmark church whose domed cupola decorated with ceramic tiles gleamed in the sunlight (left).


Within a few minutes, we were down on pebbly  Spriagga Beach (left) dipping our toes into the waters of the Bay of Naples. Despite the seas’s turbulence, the water seemed fairly comfortable to the touch but there were no takers. Most tourists clung to the sands and the shoreline where stores and restaurants offered a variety of enticements. Though it was lunch time, we preferred to find a small deli that could offer freshly prepared sandwiches and we walked through the town’s delightful environs looking for one instead of burrowing inside a restaurant.

 Luckily, we did come upon just such a place and with proscuitto, mozzarela cheese, tomatoes and basil tucked into a crusty hero, we munched our way to the top. Frequently en route we paused to exclaim over the views , this time taking the asphalt road instead of the steps. The storefronts had admirable goods on display but, it being Sunday, most were closed for the Easter weekend, but there were enough people about to give the town a stirring vibrance.

Then, after inquiring where we could find the SITA bus to take us back to Sorrento, we parked ourselves at the bus-stop on the other edge of town (left) which offered even more beautifully sweeping views of the locations and the sea all the way to the curve of the coast which hides the town of Ravello. Though we did not stay long in Positano, we saw enough of it to know that it deserves its reputation as one of the prettiest of the Amalfi towns and we were really glad we braved the elements to see it.

Journey Back to Sorrento and Naples:
Back on the SITA bus to Sorrento and from there on the train to Naples, we discovered that life had come to the standstill for the long weekend. Every shop on Corso Umberto was shut as were all our favorite pizzerias. Since we still had a couple of hours to kill before we boarded our 8.30 pm. overnight train to Venice, we found sustenance at a pizzeria in a small and rather dodgy street right off Piazza Garibaldi where the only people who did not seem to be celebrating the holiday were the illegal immigrants who hung around aimlessly, smoking cigarettes and speaking in non-Italian tongues. This is certainly not an area I would ever advise anyone to wander about alone and I was grateful for Amy’s company. With her at my side, I often felt far braver than I really am and when we found a pizzeria that was occupied by a noisy group of drinking revelers, I was more than happy that we were leaving the city for good.

Night Train to Venice:
Picking up our bags from our hotel where we rested for a little while, we left about a half hour later to find that the heavens had opened and had showered rain in bucketsful. Just as in Bombay, so too in Naples, garbage clogged the streets and manholes bringing ankle-deep floods in minutes. It was with the greatest of difficulty that we managed to drag our duffel bags behind us on our walk to the railway station. Not only were we soaked but we dreaded what the state of our belongings would be and were thrilled to discover that, thanks to our waterproof bags, the contents were unharmed in the downpour. Still, I was relieved when a nice gentleman helped us find our train and when we settled in for the night with an English-speaking Italian girl named Eliana in our wagon, I was happy that Venice, one of my very favorite of global cities, awaited and I could not wait to get there again.

To follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels in Venice, Italy, please click on the link below.

A Venetian Rhapsody

Bon Voyage!


Pompei’s Pomp and Splendor

(Amidst the ruins of the excavated city of Pompei)

A storm had accosted the Southern coast of Italy by the time we awoke, the next morning. Making a quick decision to reverse plans and go to Pompei instead of Capri as planned, we breakfasted well at Bonapace Bed and Breakfast and strolled downstairs towards the Circumvesuviana station where a day-long excursion ticket costing 5.50 Euros allowed unlimited travel all day as far away as the end of the line in Sorrento.

The train rode through the city of Naples for a long while exposing us to small apartments with cluttered balconies. Within a few minutes, outside our window, grey and overcast skies with ominous clouds hanging low obscured the summit of Mount Vesuvius (left) whose notorious volcano was active as recently as 1964 when the town of Torro el Greco, close to Pompeii was affected. It was to see the havoc wrought by its ash and lava that we were headed for Pompeii, passing, along the way, the town of Ercolano, base for explorations into Heculaneum as it was once known, another town that was destroyed by the volcano. Ercolano is also the base from which one might take a bus to the summit of Vesuvius which the energetic can then scale. However, with the weather being so uncooperative, all buses to the summit had been cancelled.
In another 45 minutes, we were alighting from the train in Pompeii and walking a couple of minutes to Porta Marina, the main entrance to the excavated city. Despite the rain, the venue was swarming with visitors, all assembled at the main Ticket kiosk to purchase tickets to the complex. The 10 Euro ticket did not include the audio guide (10 Euros for 2 or 6 Euros for one) but since our guidebooks recommended that we invest in it to bring some organization to our rambling, we did–and how grateful we were!

History of Pompeii’s Destruction:
The map of Pompeii that came with the audio guide was very helpful indeed. It is difficult to imagine exactly how vast this complex is—in fact, one is visiting an actual city that thrived in the time of the Romans, not just some museum reproduction. It was in AD 79 that Vesuvius exploded with little warning pouring its deadly lava over the unprepared city and burying it forever under endless layers of ashen rock. The roofs of the town caved under the weight of the onslaught; but beneath them the city was preserved almost intact as it had been on that fateful day. Most of our accounts of the catastrophe come from the pen of historian Pliny the Elder who found himself on a barge in the Bay of Naples from where he watched the city burn. Returning later to Pompeii when he linked forces with his nephew Pliny the Younger, he perished himself in the aftershocks that continued to plague the area for a long while. His nephew then took up the challenge of recording the devastation. The buried city remained unknown until the 17th century. Excavations began in 1748 revealing a city frozen in time.

Exploring Pompei’s Buried Glory:

As Amy and I walked through Porta Marina (so-called because it was the entrance at the city gates nearest the sea), a fine drizzle played continually making it difficult to manipulate umbrella, guidebook, map and camera in two gloved hands–because it was also very cold. Doing the best we could, we spent the morning visiting the Temple of Apollo, The Law Courts (it pays to remember that Western legal systems of jurisprudence derive entirely from the ancient Roman codes), The Macellum or Market Place, and the Botanical Gardens full of the herbs and fruit that were used for medicinal, cosmetic and culinary purposes in that era. Herbs like rosemary and lavender lent their fragrance and essences to cooking as well as to scented baths for luxurious soaking.

Following the map, we arrived at the ‘School’ or campus where students were taught the 3 Rs—the complex is designed around a quadrangle exactly like those of Western medieval colleges (Oxford and Cambridge, for instance) with columned alleys forming the kind of corridors that one associates with Gothic cloisters.

And then we arrived at the amphitheaters (left)—the large one and a smaller one near-by—where the Romans gathered periodically for theatrical entertainment. I could not help but think about the comedies of Plautus and Terence of which I had heard during my undergraduate years and, aptly enough, the audio guides provided some snippets from their plays.

 As if to dispel any misconceptions that the Roman temperament was only composed of noble qualities, at the very end of the complex was the colloseum (left) where the bloodiest of sporting events were held—gladiators in live combat with wild beats. I found it hard to understand how a people of such sophistication, such lovers of art and literature and learning, could also express such an unabashed enjoyment of violent sport. In the massive arena which seats thousands, once could well see and almost hear the blood-curdling cries that emerged from the crazed masses. It occurred to me to feel grateful for the modern customs and traditions that we owe to this Classical civilization; yet, how happy I felt that it had become extinct. I was eager to leave that scene of sadism behind to wander towards the cafeteria for a much-needed lunch as our ramblings, though taken at leisurely pace, were exhausting as the environs are vastly spread out. The food here was very mediocre and cost a Roman senator’s ransom—so be warned and come equipped with a packed lunch. However, the complex offered some respite from the incessant rain and the opportunity to use the restrooms.

Back on the excavated trail, we arrived at the Public Baths, beautifully refurbished in recent years. As we walked from one bathing chamber to the next, we understood the concept of public bathing. At a time when running water was not available in homes, public baths served the purpose of keeping citizens clean as well offered an opportunity to socialize. Men and women gathered together to shoot the breeze, their baths providing a choice of hot, cold and sauna soaks.  The extent of the ornamentation inside in the form of fresco and sculpture was quite amazing.

Also, along the same trail was the Bakery (left) where one can still see the massive grinding stones in which wheat was ground, the great dough kneading machines and the very ovens in which the loaves were fashioned. Amazing how baking techniques have changed little in thousands of years—the same steps that bakers take today to bring fresh loves to our table were taken in the time of Ancient Rome.
Then we were at the Brothel where the oldest profession in the world was carried out. Interestingly, the frescoes in this building reveal clear images of a variety of sexual positions indicating that clients could choose the exact form in which they wished to take their pleasures.

What was also fascinating was the large enclosure within which the thousands of items excavated from Pompeii have been stored—these included hundreds of terracotta amphorae, jars, fountains and bird baths, pots and pans, bowls and, in an extremely eerie turn, real casts of the people who perished in the tragedy—concrete casts that portray their exact ‘petrified’ poses and expressions at the time they met their end (left)



It was the homes called Casas and Dormus in Latin with their indoor atriums and outdoor gardens, however, that I found most fascinating. So many of them have frescoes on their walls that are still intact, almost as fresh as the day they were executed. There was Diana and there was Venus on the half-shell (above left and right), Pan and Cupid and a variety of nymphs; and at the House of Vetii was Priapus, God of the Penis! We realized how ‘religious’ the Romans were for images of their gods and goddesses were sprinkled all over their homes. I loved the layout of their houses.

All rooms opened upon a walled courtyard (left)which would have been full of yews, boxwood borders and pebbled pathways, not to mention a central fountain with decorative statues. Modern-day formal Italianate gardens are little different from this early design.

Walls inside and out were painted with a bright red pigment, much of which still remains to give the visitor an idea of exactly how the city might have looked. Some of the houses are in better shape than others—for example, the frequently-visited House of the Faun, so-called because a faun or satyr (a mythological woodland human) graces its entrance (left) .


In the same house was found the striking floor mosaic featuring Alexander the Great and King Darius of Persia in combat–(left)  (the original of which we had seen the previous evening at the Archeological Museum in Naples). The sophistication and the lifestyle of these ancient people was so fascinating to me that I found myself transported completely into that epoch as I trod along the gigantic rough hewn boulders that comprised the main avenue that runs through the city of Pompeii, Via dell’ Abbondanza upon which chariots and carts once plied. The town planning and road building skills of the ancient Romans cannot be faulted and the neat grid right-angled pattern according to which modern urban complexes have been designed does them enormous credit.

It took a lot of imagination to envision the many excavated artifacts and statuary that crams the Archeological Museum in Naples in situ. I couldn’t help wishing that the Italian authorities would place more replicas of these great pieces of sculpture and mosaic in Pompeii to give visitors an idea of how these priceless works of arts might have looked when they actually decorated the city. Still, I guess one has to protect such things from the merciless elements and more merciless thieves. In the Temple of Apollo, for instance, it made such a big difference to actually see the statue of Apollo in a building as it might have been when the Temple was a favorite Roman meeting place in the days of antiquity (above left).

I must stress that all this exploration was deeply tiring. I have been told that during the height of the summer tourist season there are mobiles that take visitors around the complex. Those weren’t running when we were visiting in mid-March. It was also very cold and the awful weather did not make for very pleasant sightseeing. A great number of the gates to the various buildings were padlocked, prohibiting our entry.  However, the interest contained within this complex is so great that one disregards these inconveniences and succumbs to the sheer fascination of time-traveling to another era when the Roman Empire was the most powerful in the world.

Back in Naples:
Back on the train to Naples, we arrived in the city in time to snatch a brief nap at our hotel, then go out in search of dinner. Amy used Lonely Planet to find us a suitable trattoria that took us walking for what seemed like miles through the maze of small lanes that open up suddenly into church piazzas in the city’s busy historic center. It being Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter Sunday, confectionery shops were full of pastries, cakes and Easter eggs and housewives hurried along the streets doing last-minute shopping for their big holiday meal.  These ventures into the least-explored parts of Naples allowed us to see the city in its most natural guise. We penetrated parts of the city in which ordinary Napolitans live their uncomplicated lives, arriving finally at the small Trattoria del Carmine on Via del Tribunali in the old historic quarter close to the Duomo where we were startled to find one of the priests from the Duomo of St. Gennaro opposite come inside for dinner! Obviously a regular, he was ushered inside—to a privileged table, perhaps?

We, however, settled for a carafe of the house Chianti which was excellent and used it to wash down our meal of Penne alla Carmine (the house pasta that came with a delicious Tomato and Meat sauce), a Veal Scallopini in Lemon Sauce (since Naples grows lemons in wild profusion) and Sauteed Brocollini also flavored with lemons. Indeed Naples is noted for its lush production of lemons and we passed hundreds of acres of lemon orchards on our train journeys along the Bay of Naples. Hence, it was only natural that I would try a Limoncello, the famous lemon liqueur that was invented in this region and has become one of Italy’s biggest exports. Needless to say, I relished every drop, and (much to Amy’s amusement) feeling slightly tipsy we made our way back to our hotel to call it a day hoping that the weather on the morrow would be better.

To follow Amy and me on the next left of our travels to the Isle of Capri in Italy, please click on the link below.

Captivating Capri

Bon Voyage


Pilgrimage to Padua

(In front of the main entrance to the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, in Padua, Italy)

Our final port of call in Italy was Padua, the small medieval city that is best known for three things: The famous Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua that has attracted pilgrims for centuries from all over the world, the Capella Arena which hides a fresco cycle by the medieval artist Giotto and the buildings of the University of Padua, the second oldest in the country (younger only than the one at Bologna) where Galileo was once a professor. What we loved in addition to all these attractions was the medieval quarter of the city which has been preserved so perfectly that the winding labyrinth of streets seemed to have been frozen completely in time. As we walked down the cobbled streets, we could have sworn we might have bumped into Galileo on his way to the university!
We took the morning train from Venice’s Santa Lucia Station to arrive about 45 minutes later in Padua. Once outside the station, we tried to find the Double Decker Hop-On, Hop-Off Sight-seeing bus but with our limited Italian and no one knowledgeable enough to tell us where to go to hop into it, we were left to our own resources. At the public bus ticket booth, the clerk advised us to buy a ticket to get to the Basilica of St. Anthony but only after we had visited the Capella Arena. That, he assured us, was a short walk away, no more than ten minutes.

Not quite sure we had understood him, we took his advice anyway, and ten minutes later, we arrived at the beautiful public gardens in which the tiny Capella Arena is set (left). Part of the complex of the archeological museum that houses excavated finds that date back to Roman times, we needed to buy a ticket inside the museum. At the counter, we held our breath, literally, for we had been informed only the previous day that entry into the chapel is strictly regulated. No more than 30 people are allowed in for visits lasting no more than 15 minutes. Since the time of one’s entry into the chapel is inscribed on the ticket, we felt fortunate to receive the last two tickets for the day, for a tour that began at 1. 30 pm.

With about two hours to kill before our chapel visit, we took a tram (our first tram ride in Europe on this trip) from the Piazza Ermitiani, opposite the museum complex and arrived at the Piazza in which the Basilica of St. Anthony is located (left). I was very excited about visiting this church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, I am aware that this church is a very important center of pilgrimage. In India, where I was raised, devotion to St. Anthony of Padua is very strong and I had seen pictures of this saint since my childhood. I was delighted to visit the place of his birth and to see the Basilica that announces so many miracles on its walls.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the grandiose dimensions of this church (left). Indeed, it is huge and very exotic, characterized by Byzantine domes and minaret-like spires. Built in 1232 of stark red brick to house the mortal remains of St. Anthony, it rises like a sentinel, quite awesome in its size and splendor.  Once inside, one is overwhelmed by the wealth of visual details. There is a succession of chapels or altars, each dedicated to a different saint. Baroque in its conception and design, the basilica boasts so much fine sculpture and art  work on its walls, not to mention a splendid cycle of frescoes in the St. James Chapel that have been recently restored and are stunning in their impact. In a small Benediction chapel, a priest was available to grant blessings upon the faithful.

Relics of St. Anthony:
The most valuable sculpture adorning the main altar inside the basilica is by Donatello. Behind the main altar is concealed the crypt that contains a visually stunning chapel dedicated entirely to the relics of St. Anthony. In this holy shrine is kept intact the brown cassock and rope belt that the saint wore as part of the Franciscan order to which he belonged. There are also his bones preserved in fabulously crafted receptacles that decorated the altar. Priests were available to grant blessings and distribute a few mementos of one’s visit.

Out in the main basilica once again, we saw the grand tomb of St. Anthony surrounded by portrayals of his cycle of life depicted through marble bas relief sculptures that were finely carved. Flanked on either side by 18th century Baroque candle stands, this chapel is one of the most frequently visited inside the church.
Outside in the church piazza, we picked up memorabilia of our own visit from a kiosk close to the equestrian statue by Donatello of Gatamelata. Then, we boarded the tram that took us back to Piazza Ermitiani. Picking up sandwiches and a bottle of water from a near-by deli, we sat in the public garden, already filled with daffodils, to enjoy the sunshine and our lunch before we made our way to the Capella Arena for our 1.30 appointment.

The Amazing Capella Arena:
Featuring in Marina Vaizey’s 100 Masterpieces of Art is The Lamentation over the Dead Christ which is part of the Capella Arena that was built in 1303 by Enrico Scrovegni in an attempt to spare his dead father, a usurer by profession, from the tortures of Hell as described by Dante in his Inferno. The Florentine artist Giotto was commissioned to decorated the small chapel from floor to ceiling. Regarded as the Father of Western Art, he straddles the divide between Medievalism on the one hand and the Renaissance on the other. His work was extremely influential especially in his depiction of space and perspective. It is impossible that one man could have painted the entire sequence of frescoes in just two years. Indeed it is very likely that the work was carried out with the aid of several assistants though Giotto was undoubtedly their author.
Given that we had only 15 minutes in which to take in the entire wonder of this work, I was confused, not knowing exactly where to look and what to scrutinize. Finally, after my eyes had passed over the interior, I paused in front of The Lamentation and used my notes to study it. The entire west wall of the chapel is covered with Giotto’s depiction of The Last Judgment while the sides portray scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of Mary. There are also allegorical portrayals of the Vices and Virtues filling negative space. Overall, the impact of this room was just spectacular and, before we knew it, our 15 minutes were up, a whistle was blown and we were asked to leave. Out in the sunshine once again, we realized that there was a wealth of archeological material to be explored but with time going against us, we elected instead to take a walking tour of the historic center of Padua which also contained the beautiful historical buildings of the University of Padua.

Padua’s Historic Center:

With the aid of a map, we followed the route that led us to Piazza Cavour which is the beginning of the historic district. A bronze statue of a woman by Emilio Greco guards the square that was full of visitors that morning. Just a few meters ahead on the same street, is the famous Café Pedrocchi ( above left) which has been a meeting place for students and intellectuals from the university since 1831. Built in the style of a classical temple, we did pay it a lightning visit with an eye to exploring the interior that is filled with some interesting frescoes.

Then, we were out in the maze of narrow, cobbled streets that housed smaller eateries (left). Passing by the Law School of the University, we arrived at Piazza Delle Erbe in which a farmer’s market was located. Fresh fruit and vegetables were filling the shopping bags of Padua’s housewives even as our eyes roamed over the ornately frescoed interior of the Palazzo della Ragione that stood in the square covered with wonderful painterly decoration. These hidden nooks and crannies of the city were entirely charming and we wished we could have spent more time just rambling aimlessly through these historic pathways.

But with an urgent desire to spend our last evening in Venice, we took the train back to Santa Lucia Station, very pleased that our day trip to Padua had been such a success. We spent our last evening in Venice sampling the wonderful gelato at Gelateria Nico at San Zaccaria about which all the guidebooks rave. And quite deservedly too for it was among the best gelato we ate in Italy.

Return Home:
The next morning, we set our clocks for our early departure from Venice to London from Treviso airport. How shocked we were to discover that we had lost an hour during the night due to daylight savings time of which we had no clue! Unable to retrieve that lost hour, we had no choice but to take a taxi to the airport instead of the bus we had intended from Piazza La Roma. To cut a long story short, we did get our flight and discovered in the check-in queue that almost everyone had made their way to the airport by cab that morning having no knowledge about the changing of the clocks. Our Ryan Air flight took off on schedule, we arrived at London’s Stansted airport earlier than expected and hopping on to the Easybus, we got to Victoria in an hour and a half.

 There, I had the most wonderful reunion with four of my high school classmates –Bina, Chandra and Rosita who had arrived from Melbourne, Australia (left).


Needless to say, it was great fun especially as the weather in London was just delightful with wonderfully bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Amy and I enjoyed the long drive by Easybus from Stansted airport to Victoria where we saw the fresh spring greenness of miles of fields, the neat suburban row houses with their sprucely-tended handkerchief sized gardens and the stately grand mansions and monuments of Central London.

That morning, Amy and I had taken the Tube to check out the village of Islington which, in recent times, has become very hip indeed.
Then, by 5. 30 pm. it was time for me to bid goodbye to my classmates and return on the Tube to Heathrow from where we boarded our American Airlines flight back to the US after what had been a truly memorable trip indeed.

Thanks for armchair-traveling with Amy and me on this incredible tour of Italy. I do hope that I have managed to convey some of the thrills and wonders of the sights we beheld and the experiences we encountered.

Do continue to travel to other parts of the world with me. A dazzling array of destinations are only a click away.

Bon Voyage!


(Piazza Garibaldi is a busy square right outside the Main Railway Station in Naples)

Viewing the Spectacular Tuscan Countryside:

The best part about Naples is getting there—on the train from Florence, we passed by the most picturesque Tuscan countryside that reminded me instantly of the visuals conjured up by my reading of Frances Mayes’ books Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany. Not surprisingly, we passed through the environs of Cortona, the village she immortalized in her books. There was fresh spring green outside my window that made it impossible for me to take my eyes off the landscape for even a second. Yellow and orange were the dominant colors of the homes we saw, many perched precariously on the very ledge of hillside promontories. Sheep dotted the fields and orange groves were in full fruit as we trundled towards Rome where the suburbs seemed like eyesores after the beauty of the countryside.
After Florence, Naples came at me like a rude shock. From the moment one walks out of the train station into Piazza Garibaldi—an ugly square surrounded by squat buildings–the decrepit nature of the city assaults. Never having made any apologies for itself, Naples wears its ugliness proudly, almost having made a visual icon of its clothes that hang out to dry from cluttered balconies and the heaps of garbage that clog its streets. In recent years, the city has become inundated with the human detritus of natural and man-made disasters. Casualties of that fall-out from Sri Lanka’s tsunami to the ethnic conflicts in Rwanda and Zimbabwe have brought droves of illegal immigrants who make a precarious living as waiters in the city’s eateries and on the streets where they sell knock-off designer handbags from out of giant blue plastic bags. There is nothing even remotely touristy about Naples, probably because most visitors merely use it as a transit point for their forays into the chic enclaves of Capri and Sorrento, Pompeii and Herculaneum.
But, having made our own base in Naples, for the next three days, we decided to explore its most significant monuments. Stashing our bags in the Hotel Bonapace, very conveniently located just behind the Porta Nolana Station which is the place from which the Circumvesuviana train runs along the Bay of Naples, we went out to get ourselves some lunch. Amy had read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love and remembered a pizzeria about which the author had raved. Located right off Corso Umberto, just a ten minute walk from our hotel, we found Antica Pizzeria da Michele which serves the best pizza in Naples, the very place where pizza was invented. There was a queue waiting outside the restaurant but because we were just two (as opposed to the groups of five and six that arrived in single parties), we were ushered inside and seated at a marble topped table right in front of the brick ovens from which the pizzas emerged.

This place (left) serves only one kind of Pizza—Pizza Margherita–which is simply tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil. And how completely delicious it was is hard to describe! There were many things we realized about pizza during that first meal in Naples. First of all, pizza is NOT fast food in Italy. You sit down and eat it with a fork and knife. Secondly, you do not share a pie with other members at your table. Each diner orders an entire pie and eats it alone. Thirdly, the pizza has a very thin, almost crunchy crust. Fourthly, it is served with no condiments, no fuss. There is no garlic powder, oregano, pepper flakes or parmesan cheese as we see on American tables. Just remarkably good pizza. Washed down with chilled Cokes (my favorite drink when eating pizza), it made a memorable meal indeed and we were so glad we chose to eat our first meal in Naples at this place because for the rest of the weekend (it being the long Easter weekend), the restaurant remained firmly closed. Having been a family business since the late 1800s, da Michele is run without an eye to massive profits and despite the fact that tourists have discovered it (thanks to Gilbert and Lonely Planet), a whole pie still costs only 4 Euros.
Then, we were at the Piazza Garibaldi station again, taking an underground train to Piazza Cavour with the aim of exploring the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (National Archeological Museum). This stupendous building houses a collection that is one of Europe’s most significant—the excavated remains of the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Castellamara del Stabia. The guide books are absolutely right when they state that the museum is overwhelming. The entry fee (a steep 10 Euros) permits a glimpse into so vast a civilization that one can only focus on the few objects that are considered its highlights—and that was what we did.

So we trooped off, first of all, to see the Farnese Bull (left) that was a remake of the original found in the Roman Baths at Carracala. It is a monumental piece of work and towers above the viewer. Portraying the Torture of Dirce by Amphion and Zethus by tying her to the horns of a bull, it is almost savage in its depiction of the myth. Next, we caught a glimpse of a huge figure of Hercules, though it was concealed behind a curtain undergoing renovation. Napoleon is said to have been sorry that he was unable to take this sculpture with him during his plundering of Italy’s art works. On another floor, we saw the superb original mosaic depicting the Battle of Alexander the Great against King Darius of Persia, which was found in the House of the Fawn in Pompeii. I found the helmet of a Roman gladiator extraordinarily moving for somehow it seemed to bring home to me with an inexplicable immediacy the fact that such bloody sports did, in fact, excite ancient Romans and that so many young men were brutally killed in their arenas. In the glass section, both Amy and I who love glass, were deeply taken by the Blue Vase, a cameo-like work in deep cobalt blue and white that survived intact after the volcanic eruption that decimated Pompeii. I am certain that we would have enjoyed the museum much more, were we able to read the labels that were in Italian only.
The next stop on our agenda was a church—since it was Good Friday, I was keen on attending an evening service and in the city’s Duomo de San Gennaro (main Church in a city that is strewn with them), I felt fortunate to catch a service featuring the Cardinal of Naples in full regalia with a huge entourage of priests in a concelebrated service that featured the Veneration of the Cross and Holy Communion. This service took place in the ornate church whose altar was heavily gilded. I was able to peak into the side Chapel of San Gennaro which contains many relics of this revered saint of the Italian South—phials of his blood are said to liquefy once a year and his head is enclosed within a silver-gilt bust. The atmosphere in the church was deeply solemn on this holiest of days and I felt privileged to be in its presence as the priests trooped out.
Then, I was ready to break my Good Friday fast with dinner at a pizzeria and this time round we chose Pizzeria Trianon which is located just one street behind the more famous da Michele. However, we found Trianon’s Marinara Pizza with extra Mozarella just as good if not better than the one we had devoured that afternoon. Amy and I always split a pizza as we found it impossible to eat a whole one by ourselves.
Overall, Naples reminded me so much of Bombay. The chaos of the city, the loudly blaring horns, the traffic choking the streets, the combination in the air of neglect and homeliness is hard to describe. Visions of my hometown kept coming back to me as I fell asleep exhausted that night.

(To Follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels in Pompei, Italy, please click on the link below:)

Pompei’s Pomp and Splendor

Bon Voyage!


Lovely Lucca

(Amy and I pose in Lucca’s famous Amphitheatro)

It was my students (many of whom have spent a semester in Florence, Italy) who told me about Lucca. “You Must go to Lucca” they said. “You’re bound to love it”. Situated only twenty minutes by train from Pisa, it can so easily be covered in the same day. On the train that was crowded with chattering Italian commuter students, we enjoyed the passing Tuscan scenery with its spring growth slowly emerging after a short winter’s slumber. There were the cypress trees rising like sentinels in the midst of wheat fields and farm houses all painted in those striking shades of yellow and orange that make the countryside so distinctive in this part of Italy.

Spring Time in Lovely Lucca:

Stashing our bags in the Tourist Information kiosk for a small fee and equipped with a map, we began our exploration of this little-known township passing through its massive walls for Lucca is a fortified Roman city whose ramparts are thick brick walled walkways designed to keep enemies at bay. Once inside the city, we noticed that spring had come to the cherry trees that lined the narrow streets, so profusely were they in bloom. Utterly delightful (above left)!

The Church of San Martino:

The walls of the famous Duomo of San Martino (St. Martin) whose construction began in 1093 towered above us and we headed at leisure towards its square which was almost deserted but for a small student group. Once at the church door, we used our tourist literature to observe curious elements of its exterior architecture. Also built in Pisan-Romanesque style, this grey and white marble building and its accompanying red-brick campanile or bell-tower contrasted oddly with each other (left). Once inside, we discovered that the church houses three precious items: A crucifix portraying the Holy Face (Volto Santo) of Christ that is supposed to have been carved by St. Nicodemus at the time that he helped take Christ down from the cross, a gilded altarpiece by Ghirlandaio and a marvelous piece of funerary sculpture–the Tomb of Illaria del Carretto, a young bride, by Jacopo della Quercia. She was so deeply loved that when she died in childbirth, she was greatly mourned by her husband who commissioned the sculpture. If Illaria did indeed look exactly as she was sculpted, she must have been a stunner for her face is exquisite. The cold white marble and her reclining posture give the entire work an ethereal air and we felt the need to whisper in the sacristy where the figure is concealed. Be prepared to pay a small fee to see the altarpiece and the sculpture.

Along Via Fialuongo:

Leaving the cathedral square behind us, we walked towards Lucca’s famed amphitheater along Via Fialuongo, whose boutiques were crammed with fashionable clothing, leather goods and jewelry. The weather was just perfect for casual sauntering and the city’s cobbled streets were virtually empty. We were grateful to have made our entry into Italy through these quiet smaller towns in whose medieval quarters cars are prohibited. These made for delightfully aimless rambles and though we were already foot sore by this point in our travels, we were loathe to stop anywhere to rest.

The Roman Amphitheater:
Lucca’s Roman Amphitheatro is truly unique. Built by the Romans as an amphitheater for bloody gladiatorial sport, the structure today contains homes, shops and restaurants built on top of what were once the walls of the collosseum and, therefore, forms a perfect oval. Within the spacious expanses of this shape, we walked in wonder, amazed to think that the arched entrances we saw around us were once the openings for enslaved gladiators and the wild beasts who entertained blood-thirsty crowds. Once again, it was the uniformly warm shades of yellow reaching towards orange and red that made the amphitheater striking.

The Church of San Frediano:

Leaving it behind us, we walked towards the Church of San Frediano (left) whose façade featured an impressive Biblical mosaic that glittered in the bright sunlight. This Pisan-Romanesque church was closed but the quiet square within which it is set was very charming indeed. It is easy to get lost in the streets of Lucca as the eye is attracted to all sorts of charming corners.

The Church of San Michele in Foro:

Following our map, we made our way towards the Church of San Michele in Foro (the church of St. Michael in the Forum–left), so-called because it is built on the site of what was formerly the Roman Forum. Another wonderful structure in Pisan-Romanesque design, it is set in a busy square in which brisk trading was carried out by a variety of vendors. We realized that the squares of most tourist sites, churches especially, have been converted into sites for petty trade, a matter of which Christ might not have approved (remember how he chased away the traders from the temple at Jerusalem?) and of which I did not approve either as I felt that the sanctity and the beauty of these public spaces were completely destroyed by unsightly white awnings. This particular church is crowned by a gilded sculpture of Archangel Michael after whom it is named.

Home of Composer Puccini:

A few lanes away in a quiet, unassuming piazza is a sculpture of Giacomo Puccini, Italy’s beloved composer of such famous operas as Tosca, Turandot, La Boheme and Madame Butterfly. I was so pleased to come upon the very square that contains the modest home in which this composer was born and composed some of my favorite arias such as “O Mio Bambino Caro” (from Gianni Schicchi) and “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot). Puccini sits majestically on a grand chair lording it over the square, his cigar hanging from his hand in complete defiance of every contemporary health rule (above left). His home, now a museum to the composer’s memory, was closed which did not allow us to see the very desk at which he composed some of his best-known works.

Piazza Napoleon:

Returning to Lucca’s railway station via Piazza Napoleon which contains a sculpture of the Emperor’s sister Louisa (left), we walked along the ramparts, stopping to take pictures of the Roman lion of Lucca and to enjoy our first gelatos in Italy as we selected from a wide variety of ice-cream in a very cute gelateria.

Then, we boarded a train that took us into the beautiful heart of the Tuscan countryside past more wheat fields and orange groves, sheep dotted hillsides and yellow plastered farm dwellings. An hour later, our train pulled into Santa Maria Novella Train Station in Florence that is usually referred to as Statione Centrale.

To follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels in Florence, Italy, please click on this link below:

Fabulous Florence

Bon Voyage!


Fabulous Florence

(Amy and I pose on the banks of River Arno in Florence with the famous Ponte Vechhio behind us) 

What can one say about Florence that hasn’t been said before? What adjective can one find to describe a city that has existed for thousands of years and has barely changed since its most glorious epoch? Florence was a high seat of the Renaissance—the rebirth in the arts and culture, literature and learning that swept through Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries resulting in that vast outpouring of intellect and creativity is plainly in evidence on the bricks of its walls, the cobbles of its ancient streets and the breathtaking canvasses and statues that adorn its many museums.

So once in Florence prepare yourself for the best that Europe can offer—uniform red-roofed structures  (left) punctuated by cloud-piercing bell-towers, roomy piazzas surrounded by stolid official buildings, fashionable shops selling luxury items such as leather goods and olive-wood writing implements, unusual paper products and glass jewelry in the distinctive mille fiori, pietra dura and mosaic patterns, cloistered churches within whose walls lurk world-famous frescoes, expensive restaurants that serve some of the best ciocolata caldo (hot chocolate) in the world and old-world bridges upon which goldsmiths still continue to display their craftsmanship just as they did in the prosperous days of the Medici dukes.

I had last visited Florence twenty years ago and very briefly at that! In fact, as I check the entries made in my travel journal at the time, I see that I had passed through the city with my French friend Chantal for just a day–at which time we had breezed through the Uffizi, stolled through the Piazza della Signoria  and the Palazzo Vecchio (left) to see the fake sculpture of David by Michelangelo, saw the Duomo, the Baptistry and the Campanile from the outside, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, walked through the Boboli Gardens and visited the Church of Santa Maria Novella—all in one day. It was just a brief walking tour of the city’s most touristic spots. Unbelievable! I can’t imagine how I managed to tear myself away from this city so quickly.

Twenty years later, I was determined that things would be very different for Amy and me. She too had visited Florence before but now that we were older, much more mature, far better educated in Art History and so much less frugal, we could look forward to a better time. We intended to take Florence at a far more leisurely pace, to savor its unique ambience and to integrate ourselves into its Medieval and Renaissance history.

At Home with a Friend:

Walking just five minutes from the train station to Via Sant Antonio, we arrived at the lovely fourth floor walk-up apartment of my NYU friend and colleague, Dr. Mahnaz Yousefzadeh (center) who is currently on a teaching assignment at NYU’s campus at Villa La Pietra. Mahnaz welcomed us warmly and chatting over a glass of wine and sugar-sweet clementines, we spent a relaxing evening. Because Mahnaz had an official dinner appointment that evening, she directed us to Trattoria Za-Za located close to the Church of San Lorenzo for dinner. Amy and I loved the basement dining room with its stucco walls and the intimate corner to which our waiter directed us. Over a lovely carafe of vino rosso (red wine), we tucked into Italy’s most popular appetizer—crusty bread dipped in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (olio e aceto balsamico). We decided to try the pasta and with Amy opting for penne pomodoro while I chose a ravioli stuffed with spinach and goat cheese in a walnut sauce, we had ourselves one of the most memorable meals in Italy.

Unable to call it a day, we took a detour on the way home and arrived, startlingly, at the Piazza delle Duomo (left) where we were accosted by the magnificence of Florence’s most revered structures—the 11th century Baptistry in which Florentines like Petrarch, Dante and Machiavelli were once baptized, the Campanile  or bell tower and Duomo dei Santa Maria del Fiore which is topped by the amazing engineering of Brunnelleschi’s Dome. To behold it in the moonlight while the softness of its marble exterior glowed was truly magical and we were both speechless. Having seen these monuments before, I too was struck by the impact they made upon me in their new spotless avatars. Indeed every single one of these buildings has been cleaned and restored. Now we know what the Europeans are doing with the money generated by their thriving economies!

Outside the Baptistry, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous “Gates of Paradise”, (left) also recently refurbished, gleamed in the light of the full moon. Named thus by Michelangelo who was deeply impressed by them, the name stuck and, generations later, we still know them by this appendage. How fortunate we felt to have these monuments to ourselves, stripped of the throngs of tourists who normally choke the squares to capacity! Unable to tear ourselves from these sights, we walked all around the Duomo taking in its various curves and angles and noticing the difference in the appearance of those few portions of the church where restoration is still in progress.

Exploring the Uffizi Gallery:

The next morning, Mahnaaz, Amy and I gathered in the Café del Rossa for a caffe latte and a chocolate brioche in what became one of our daily morning rituals (left). We learned from Mahnaz that food consumed at the counter in restaurants or trattorias cost a fraction of their price when eaten at a table! That explains why so many office-bound Florentinos crowded around the counter while munching their brioches and sipping their cappucinos.

When well braced against the rigors of the day’s sightseeing, we bid Mahnaz goodbye and set off for the Uffizi Gallery where I had made online bookings several weeks in advance. The last time I had been to the Uffizi, we had spent an hour and a half in line just waiting to get in. I was determined not to let this happen anywhere and paying the extra 3 Euros that it took to make online reservations, we walked right up to the counter, past the waiting crowds, claimed our tickets and walked straight into the Museum.
The Uffizi is one of Europe’s greatest art galleries and the museum whose collection numbers canvasses in the thousands, is able to display only a small fraction of those at any given time. After a huffing and puffing climb that took us to the third floor of the museum, we began our exploration of its highlights using Marina Vaizey’s 100 Masterpieces of Art as well as the recommendations contained in Lonely Planet Italy and the DK Eye Witness Travel Guides. And so we saw them all—the heavyweights of Renaissance Paintings—from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring to Michelangelo’s only oil painting–his portrait of the Holy Family; from Pierro della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino to Fra Lippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child; from Giotto’s Madonna to Gentille da Fabriano’s glorious Adoration of the Magi. My very favorite painting in the Uffizi, however, Carravaggio’s Bacchus, I saved for the very last, finding it tucked away on the lowest floor in a special exhibition. We found our art notes most helpful in understanding the history and techniques of these canvasses and had no idea where the time flew as we moved from one room to the next within the vast spaces of the museum, stopping only to take in the fabulous views of the Arno flowing down below us from the topmost floor.

Then, we were out on Piazza della Signoria (left)  joining the hordes of tourists who had arrived by mid-day to mill around taking pictures. One of the best ways to enjoy these popular cities of Europe is to wake at the crack of dawn and get to the monuments before the rest of the visitors invade or to wait until night fall to see the monuments in a completely different light. Making our way slowly towards Santa Maria Novella railway Station, we boarded Bus number 12 that took us to our next destination in about twenty minutes.

Viewing Villa La Pietra:
The complex that is known as Villa La Pietra (left) consists of five Florentine villas spread out on a property of 500 acres that belonged to the aristocratic English family of the Actons. Lord Harold Acton, last owner of the estate, having been childless, passed it on to New York University which converted the property into an international campus and has been leading a very successful program in Florence for the past 15 years. While four villas today house classrooms, dorms and other administrative offices, Villa La Pietra itself, the house in which the Actons lived, has been retained as a museum to showcase the vast collection of art and antiques that the Actons acquired in their lifetime. After a lasagne lunch in the campus cafeteria, Amy and I took the guided tour of the home and gardens that was conducted by one of the students. As we toured the reception rooms and the private rooms of the Actons, our eyes took in the full range of sculpture, paintings and decorative objects d’art that Lord Acton loved. However, it was the gardens that were truly spectacular. When NYU took over the property, they undertook a fourteen year plan for the development of the gardens and in the thirteen years that have ensued, they have done an amazing job.

To walk through the extensive olive groves, the formal Italianate gardens full of statuary (there are more than a hundred pieces of sculpture in the gardens), the yew and box borders, is to be transported into Paradise. Divided into various rooms, each part of the gardens revealed themselves to us in a different guise. And at the very bottom of the garden were the grand sweeping vistas that presented the rooftops of Florence in all their varied glory. Truly, the tour of Villa La Pietra gave us a glimpse into the kind of palazzos in which moneyed Italians have lived for generations and we felt privileged to have had the opportunity to peak into this wealthy lifestyle.

Around Piazza della Republica:

By the time we returned on the bus to Piazza della Republica, we were ready for a hot chocolate and having one at the famous Ristorante Gilli (left) that is situated right on the square and has been made internationally known by the films of Merchant-Ivory was high on our priority list of things to do. We settled down to steaming cups of what seemed like liquid candy—it was so dark, so sweet and so astonishingly thick we could stand our spoons in it. At 6 Euros a cup, it was steeply priced, but easily one of the most memorable cups of hot chocolate we had ever tasted. With this sweet sustenance, our thoughts turned to dinner and we decided to stroll to Via Il Pacheti to make reservations at Ristorante Il Latini that is highly recommended as offering some of the finest meals in Florence for a very reasonable tab. When we did find the place on a winding, nondescript street, we were told that no reservations were taken. However, we were promised a table at 7.30 pm and we resolved to get back to the restaurant well in time to claim our seats.

With more than an hour left to kill, we wandered towards the Arno and on impulse decided to cross the Ponte Vechhio (left) to sample the wares of some of the smartest shops in the city. But, en route, I was enticed by the display windows of Il Papyri, a chain store that specializes in fine writing implements and unusual paper. I decided to try to find a special gift for Llew who loves fountain pens and uses them regularly. In the company of the sweetest saleswoman, both Amy and I ended up buying olive-wood fountain pens with bottles of old-fashioned ink, sticks of sealing lacquer and a seal with the initial A on it to be used for sealing letters in the Renaissance style. With our goodies beautifully wrapped up in the Italian custom, we headed towards the Ponte Vechhio and spent the most delightful time peering at the dazzling jewels displayed in the windows of the city’s foremost jewelers. When we arrived on the opposite bank of the River Arno—the Oltrarno, as it is known, we decided to walk on the other side of the bridge to continue window-shopping.

A little while later, we were seated at Il Latini (left) which had attracted a long queue outside its doors. Once we made it into the restaurant, we were placed at a long communal table, coincidentally enough, with a group of young American students visiting Italy on their spring break. Even before we had a chance to glance at the menu, the proprietor who took a shine to Amy (blame her blonde good looks!), brought us plates of antipasto that consisted of the most succulent proscuitto (which hung from great big hooks in the ceiling beams), Genoa salami and crostini slathered with liver pate and bruschetta. Having almost made a meal of the appetizers and crusty bread that followed, Amy and I decided to share the House Pasta—a Penne alla Latini which came with a tasty meat sauce. We polished it off in minutes, then decided to sample the desserts and settled for a panna cotta which was amazingly light. The proprietor then decided to send us complimentary glasses of muscadet (a sweet dessert wine), and another tiny glass filled with vino santo which was accompanied by tiny almond biscotti. After all the red wine we had drunk with our meal, this seemed almost sinful but we relished each drop and was stunned when our bill came to just 15 Euros each.
When we returned to Mahnaz’s apartment, I found that my colleague Minu Tharoor had arrived from New York that morning and after a noisy reunion with her, we sat down to chat late into the night before sheer fatigue made us call it a night.

Excursion to the Barghello:

When we awoke the next morning, we resumed our morning breakfast ritual at the café before heading off to the Barghello Museum (left) to see its marvelous collection of sculpture. While almost everyone is familiar with Michelangelo’s David, few people know Donatello’s David and it was primarily to see this sculpture that I had made online reservations at the Barghello which used to be a prison in the Middle Ages.

It chilled me to realize that the torture and execution of prisoners took place in its central walled courtyard (left) through which we passed. The building is itself a curiosity with its stark brick lined walls and the tower that rises upwards to become a city landmark.

We started our discovery of this collection of outstanding sculpture on the ground floor with iur examination of Michelangelo’s superlative work including his Bacchus, Brutus and the circular, unfinished Madonna and Child. But it was Giambologna’s Baccho that was the most strikingly beautiful item in this room carved, as it was, in stunning dark marble. With this room covered, we climbed the stairs to get to the first floor where I discovered to my disappointment that Donatello’s David was being restored and was laid down on its back allowing us to see some aspects of the sculpture that would otherwise have remained hidden. Despite the odd position in which we found David, I was so deeply moved by the sculpture that I found my eyes tearing up. Donatello’s young androgynous David, about whom so much has been written, was much smaller than I expected and yet so graceful in its portrayal. We also saw the originally submitted panels for the competition that had Ghiberti and Brunnelleschi battle out for the commission of the Gates of Paradise. Overall, visiting the Barghello was a deeply fulfilling experience and I heartily recommend that more visitors place it on their itinerary.

Perusing The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens:

Then it was time for us to troop off to the Pitti Palace (left) where we had reservations for 11.30 am. Over the Ponte Vecchio and in the Oltrarno, once again, we found ourselves outside the squat and very plain building that, in a huge trick of deception, houses some of the most opulent rooms in all of Europe. Once we bought our tickets (rather steep at 12 Euros plus 10 Euros for a visit to the Boboli Gardens), we were swept away into the grandeur of the Medici Royal Apartments where the elaboration of the decoration simply beggars description, so I will not even try to describe it. Suffice it to say that layer upon layer of decorative elements—sculpture, painting, gilding, fresco, and bas relief accompanied by the bright lights of colossal crystal chandeliers combined to give the rooms a sense of splendor that was meant to impress visiting heads of state and royalty that, over the centuries, arrived in Florence to partake of its legendary finery.
It was almost a relief to leave the palace rooms behind to wander into the art gallery which housed some of the most famous paintings and sculpture in the world including a number of truly elegant Madonnas by Raphael, Fra Lippo Lippi’s exquisite Madonna and Child and several works by Titian. I particularly loved Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Venus de Milo but had to rush from one room to the next to take in the vast collection of silver, ivory, porcelain, glassware, jewelry, amber, etc. that the Medici collection could boast. Both Amy and I who have a fondness for everything beautiful from jewelry to ivory boxes were truly enchanted by this collection and agreed that this was the first time on our trip that we felt truly overwhelmed for we could easily have spent a whole day in the palace.

Tired, and deciding to give sightseeing a break, Amy wandered out to the front lawns of the Palace to people-watch while I explored the famous Boboli Gardens (left) at the back of the building. I was keen to photograph the gardens for my website but must admit that there was really very little that was truly picture-worthy. Spring foliage hadn’t yet arrived and most trees were bare. While a few visitors lazed on the lawns and sunbathed on the terraces of the formally landscaped tiers, I took pictures of the many urns and statues that dotted the pools including the attractive one of Neptune in the center of the garden.

The Capella Brancacci:

Then, joining Amy on the street outside, we rambled on through the lesser-known squares of the Oltrarno before we arrived at Piazza del Carmine which houses the church called Santa Maria del Carmine where we hoped to be able to enter the famous Capella Brancacci (left). This renowned venue hides one of the most amazing cycle of frescoes in the world—a series that was started by artist Masaccio but was taken on by Massolino and finally completed by Fra Filipinno Lippi. While Masaccio’s work presents scenes from Genesis—his agonized Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise is truly heart-breaking and Massolino depicted the Temptation of Adam on an opposite wall, scenes from the life of St. Peter were the focus of Lippi. Begun in 1425, they were finally completed in 1480 and were the envy of artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo who visited the chapel to study this work. Since entry into the chapel is very closely limited to just 30 people at a time and since visits are strictly by appointment which we had failed to make, we felt extremely fortunate to sneak in with a student group. After we had studied and admired the frescoes, we spent some time in the cloistered courtyard of the chapel which I found exceedingly enchanting.

Florence’s Other Temptations:

Before leaving the Oltrarno, I resolved to try and find the Gelateria del Carriaia which my students Jessica and Kristin had told me served the best gelato in the city. And they were entirely correct. Trekking through the tangle of narrow city streets, with the aid of a map, we did find the location right at the very corner of Ponte de Carriaia and for the next several minutes, as we poised ourselves on the wide ledges overlooking the banks of the River Arno with our ice-cream, we enjoyed gazing at the reflections of the buildings in the water (above left). Then, we were crossing Ponte de Trinita on foot to try to find the Church of Santa Trinita and the Ghirlandaios contained within that Minu had told us we simply must not miss. Alas, the church was closed for the afternoon siesta and we made our way instead back to the Piazza della Signoria with the aim of touring the interior of the Duomo de Santa Maria de Fiori.

Trekking up into the Heights of Brunnelleschi’s Dome:

Amy was in the midst of reading Brunnelleschi’s Dome by Ross King and was able to provide me with the inside scoop on the construction of the Dome. We did enter the church and took in the stark and rather dark interior and then decided to pay the 6 Euros to climb up the 468 steps to the cupola of the Dome in order to treat ourselves to unforgettable views of the rooftops of Florence.

What an amazing experience that was! I did not think that either one of us would have the energy for so strenuous a climb after the incessant amount of walking we had done for the past week. But somewhere we found the fonts of energy that propelled us to the top, allowing us to see the immense interior of the dome with the superb painting of The Last Judgment by Giorgio Vassari (Brunnelleschi’s biographer) at such close quarters that I felt as if I could reach out and touch it. Having taken our time to get to the top, we reached there at dusk and gasped at the vistas that were spread out before us. How fabulous it was to be able to pick out the various landmarks of the city with which we had become fondly acquainted in the past couple of days!






There was the Pallazzo Pitti and there was San Lorenzo and there in the distance was Santa Croce.

Meanwhile, right before us, the Campanile stood like a sentinel, its marble pietra dura inlay thrilling us in the many soft shades of green and pink and peach that were imbedded in the white stone column. And to see Brunnelleschi’s work up close and personal—what a treat that was! Words cannot describe the impact that this view of the world had on me. I could not stop clicking and when I had quite finished taking pictures, I wanted to sit quietly and watch the sun set over a salmon Florentine sky as lights came on in the distance.

You can see me at left gazing in awe at a sculpture of Filipo Brunnelleschi, architect of the Dome as he gazes up at his own handiwork. I thought that the placement of this sculpture in the Piazza of the Duomo was indeed ingenious. Climbing almost 500 steps to see his work at such close quarters was truly one of the highlights of our tip and I know I will never forget the trek to the top that brought us this wonderful perspective on Italy

Dining and Breakfasting out in Florentine Style:

That evening, Minu and Mahnaz joined us for dinner. Since it was Persian Nourooz (New Year), Mahnaz wanted to celebrate and we decided to treat our hostess to a slap up dinner at a place she suggested—Ristorante Acqua Al Due—where the food was seriously good (left). Over excellent house Chianti, we shared a salad and a Fussilli in Spinach Sauce—both of which were wonderful. As each of us ordered different entrees, I settled for Veal in a Porcini Sauce—a simply amazing dish that was tender and tasty—and split Tiramisu and a Fruit Tart for dessert—all of which cost us about 22 Euros per head. Since it happened to be pouring during the time we were indoors, we walked out into a wet and chilly evening but could not resist stopping once more at Piazza del Duomo to see the church’s dominant edifice once again by moonlight.
The Accademia della Arte and Our Discovery of David:
To our relief, sunlight streamed in through the window, waking us the next morning to our breakfast of caffe latte and chocolate croissants at our corner café. I was very excited as we had reservations that morning to get to the Academia delle Arte (the Academy of Fine Arts) which houses Florence’s most famous sculpture—Michelangelo’s David. However, the weather changed suddenly and by the time we reached the Academia, merely ten minutes later, it was rainy and cold. What a relief it was to escape into the museum before the majority of the tourist crowd arrived in our wake.
At the entrance, we were quite taken by Giambologna’s towering sculpture of The Rape of the Sabines. The work is encircled by some of the most famous of the gallery’s collection including oil paintings by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio. However, it was a magnificent panel that once decorated a Tuscan dowry chest known as the Cassonne Adimari by Lo Scheggia that caught Amy’s eye and had her in a thrall as it featured the wedding ceremony of the influential Adimari family.
Making our way into the next room, we went past Michelangelo’s Four Prisoners, so-called because these unfinished works by the master seem to represent an attempt on their part to escape from the entrapment of their stone prisons. However, I do believe that few visitors give these works the attention they deserve as our eyes are drawn as if by voodoo to the compelling sculpture of David at the far end of the hallway where he towers above the crowd like a colossus on a lofty pedestal. Once again, I find myself groping for words to describe the impact that this work had on me. Though I had seen many copies of Michelangelo’s most famous work over the years—in the Piazza della Signoria and outside a planetarium in Glenview, California, many years ago, these copies appear like trash when compared to the real thing. David was, for me at least, truly mesmerizing and I found it hard to believe that anything so huge and so powerfully executed could, at the same time, be so graceful. Amy and I spent more than half an hour encircling this three-dimensional free-standing sculpture and read a lot about its history. We even played with the electronic devices in the room that allowed us to see video images lit up in such a manner as to highlight different angles of the work. In the presence of such greatness, we were dumbfounded. Despite the fact that so many other visitors were present in the room at the same time, you hardly heard a sound. When people spoke, it was almost respectfully, in hushed whispers.

Medieval Florence:
Leaving the Academia behind, we walked towards the furthest reaches of the city center to take in the Convent of San Marco where Fra Angelico’s fresco presenting The Annunciation is considered one of the world’s masterpieces of art. This permitted us the opportunity to stroll through one of the most unspoiled piazzas in Florence. Indeed, were it not for the fact that buses plied to neighboring towns in the next street, we could easily have believed that we had regressed to the 13th century. Brunnelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti (Orphanage for Abandoned Mites) dominated this square decorated on its facade by the ceramic figures of babies by Lucca della Robbia. This building was an orphanage in Renaissance times and allowed women to leave foundlings on its doorstep.
Just adjacent to this structure is one of Florence’s most ornate Baroque churches—the Santissima Annunziata–though you wouldn’t know it by the modesty of its exterior. Once inside the church, however, the eye was exhausted by the wealth of decorative detail.

The Museum of Santa Maria del Fiore:

Our next port of call was the Museo del Duomo de Santa Maria del Fiori, a lovely space that holds all of the original sculptural figures that once adorned the façade of the Duomo.

Today, the figures one sees on the front of the church are copies that brave the elements. The original ones, sculpted by such masters as Donatello and Lucca del Robbia (not to be confused with Andrea della Robbia who created the famous ceramic wreaths) are housed inside the museum in an attempt to preserve them for posterity. The museum also contains Donatello’s stirring wooden Mary Magdalen, which, leaving all the conventions of Renaissance style behind it, is executed in an extremely futuristic fashion. Mary Magdalen looks deeply tormented in this portrayal.

One of the most striking items in this collection, however, is Michelangelo’s early limestone Pieta (the one in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in marble is by far the more famous one) featuring Nicodemus as the central character as he takes Christ down from the cross. What is fascinating about this sculpture is that the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo and, therefore, a superb likeness of this Renaissance master

Downstairs in the walled courtyard are the original bronzed ‘Gates of Paradise’ by Ghiberti (gleaming in their recently refurbished state) and the original three sculptures of Jesus, John the Baptist and the Angel –copies of which stand today above the Baptistry Gates.

Then, just by chance, we discovered that Bus Number 7 ran right by the next square and we decided to board it in order to leave the bustle of Florence behind and escape into the Tuscan countryside. A few minutes later, we found our bus climbing up the steep wooded hillsides towards Fiesole, one of the prettiest little villages in the Florentine vicinity.

(To Follow Amy and me on our excursion to Fiesole, please click on the link. You can return to our sightseeing in Florence at the end of the page on Fiesole.)

More Florentine Adventures:

Since it was Maundy Thursday, I decided to try and find out if I could catch an evening service in one of the city’s many historic churches. Because we had not yet visited the Church of Santa Croce (left), we alighted at Piazza San Marco and walked (with the aid of a map) towards the church. As evening had fallen by then, the church was closed to visitors as worshippers made their way inside for the 6pm service. Just before the service began, however, I was fortunate enough to tour the interior where I saw the stirring monuments and tombs of such beloved Florentines as Michelangelo, Dante, Macchiavelli, and Galileo. These finely sculpted marble monuments are works of art in themselves but the fact that they are located within a historic church gives them a unique sanctity. Then, I made my way along the cloistered courtyard towards the Capella de Pazzi where I was one of the last visitors of the day to see Brunnelleschi’s tiny chapel designed by the master architect and decorated with ceramic motifs by Lucca della Robbia. Though it appears rather stark and devoid of ornamentation, it is considered a fine lesson in the principles of Renaissance architectural design.
Meanwhile, a short path led towards the Capella Baroncelli that is covered with frescos by Tadeo Gaddi, Giotto’s famous pupil. Many amazing art works are housed in this chapel today following the flood of 1966 which damaged valuable works including Cimabue’s Crucifix.

Lorenzo Veneziano’s Deposition from the Cross (left) was particularly striking both in its dimensions and the quality of its execution. Meanwhile, the tiny Capella Bardi which contains Giotto’s frescoes depicting the life and death of St. Francis are enclosed within a tiny space and could easily be seen even as I attended the short evening service in Italian and received Communion.
This, being our last night in Florence, I decided for dinner to try the famous regional specialty called Bistecca alla Fiorentina which is simply steak grilled very rare and served with no seasonings. As Amy was frightfully cold that evening, we started our meal in a tiny trattoria—so tiny that I cannot remember its name and will never find it again—where we ate wonderfully warming faro (barley) soup and a chicken broth with bread lurking in the bottom. When the bistecca did come to our tables, we split it and found it very satisfying indeed. The English trifle was not such a great choice, however, and, with Amy all warmed up, we decided to go out in search of some good gelato for dessert.
It was with relief that we dropped into bed that night after massaging the balls of our aching feet. It was our last night in Florence and I had truly enjoyed every remote nook and cranny of this medieval city and could gladly have spent another week there. Though it is crammed full of treasures, it is a city that can easily be discovered entirely by foot and if walking is one of your pleasures as it is mine, you will find a lot to charm in this European gem.
Michelangelo’s Marvels in San Lorenzo:

Awaking the next morning to another lovely day, I decided to try and catch a glimpse of the Blessed Sacrament in the Church of San Lorenzo as it was Good Friday and our train to Naples did not leave until 11 am. Mahnaz’s apartment is located on a small street right off the piazza that holds the massive domed church and we had spent a great deal of time lingering among the many stalls set up by immigrant vendors from Iran and Africa as we surveyed their leather goods, silk scarves and souvenirs.
However, we had never been inside the church. That morning, visitors trooped in solemn mood to pray in the church on this holiest of days in the Christian calendar. I was struck by the works of art inside, the most amazing of which was the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (for whom the church is named) by Bronzino—a massive fresco on the east wall that depicts the human form is so many different poses even as it presents the agony of the saint while being roasted on live coals. Right behind us, the bronze pulpits by Donatello—not refurbished and, therefore, pitch black—depicted Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.
Then, we walked behind the exquisite pietra dura altar, also surrounded by Old Master paintings, in front of the simple grave stone marking the final resting place of Cosimo I (Il Vecchio) to arrive at the Medici Chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. Despite the fact that the chapel is undergoing extensive renovation and was almost entirely concealed behind metal scaffolding, we could see the six marble tombs of the Medici princes as well as the gorgeous altar that was thickly decorated with flowers for the coming Easter Sunday services. The entire chapel is visually stunning as massive marble pillars and walls are studded with pietra dura decoration featuring every color and variety of native Italian stone.  Then, I was rushing around towards the cloisters to climb up the steps to the first floor Medici Library whose sweeping staircase was designed in Mannerist style by Michelangelo as was the private family Library within. The Capella Medici’s New Sacristy also contains two interesting tombs by Michelangelo —one of The Dukes of Nemours and the second of The Duke of Urbino (grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent). Lorenzo’s own tomb, with that of his murdered brother Giuliano, is close by.
I was very pleased indeed to have seen this extraordinarily important church and having already seen the Church of Santa Maria Novella, twenty years ago, I ended up seeing every single one of the most important churches that dot the Florentine map.
Racing back to Mahnaz’s place to pick up our bags, we walked briskly to the nearby station to catch our train to Naples where we arrived at 2 pm. after a very interesting journey that took us to Rome where the train made a quick stop.

To follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels in Naples, Italy, please click on the link below:


Bon Voyage!


Freewheeling in Fiesole

(Amy and I on one of the terraces overlooking the panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside and distant Florence from Fiesole)

Compared to Florence, Fiesole (pronounced ‘Fee-ay-zo-lay’) appeared deserted. The bus dropped us off in the main square which was quite empty indeed. Deciding to make our way to the Tourist Information Center for maps, we took a narrow lane off the main piazza and were directed to make the steep climb up a cobbled hillside pathway called Via dei San Francesco to find sustenance in one of the restaurants on the summit. It was lunch time and our ramblings had rendered us ravenous. We were delighted to find that Café Reggia offered a panoramic view of the countryside of Tuscany all the way down to the city of Florence whose Duomo could be easily discerned in the distance. 

Over a really amazing pasta lunch consisting of Spaghetti Pomodoro for Amy and Goat-cheese filled Ravioli in a Tomato-Orange Sauce for me, we had a meal to remember as well as a restaurant all to ourselves. It is impossible to describe the warming memories that such dining experiences have when one is in Italy, gazing upon olive groves and orange orchards as far as the eye can see and breathing in the softness of the mountain air. It was truly serene (left).

The neighboring 13th Church of San Francesco just cried out to be explored and we made our way inside to find some interesting oil paintings and gilded altarpieces as well as a truly charming cloistered courtyard as this is also a Franciscan friary (left) . I was enchanted by this space with its red-tiled roofs, terracotta pottery containing herbs like rosemary and thyme and the wooden pillars that held the roof in place and created quiet walkways for tranquil contemplation.
At the front of the church was a special retrospective on the contemporary Italian artist Cesare Rizzoli and we spent an interesting few minutes reviewing his life’s work. Then, as we made our way down the cobbled pathway to the main piazza, we beheld enchanting vistas of the town spread out before us with its piercing campanile, red roofs and yellow sided homes. Amy was unable to leave the serenity of this town behind and urged me to explore its far side which took us past some interesting stores along another winding mountain path. Had we more time and energy, we could easily have climbed higher, taking in the quaintness of our surroundings. But we needed to get back to Florence (a mere fifteen minute bus ride away) and we soon found ourselves back on the bus to the city.

To Follow Amy and Me back on the remainder of our sightseeing  in Florence, plesae click on the link below:

Fabulous Florence

Bon Voyage!


Captivating Capri

(Rochelle and Amy at Marina Grande on arrival upon the glorious Isle of Capri)

Waking up in Naples, which was our base for our excursions to the tourist sites in Southern Italy, we could not have been more disappointed. The rain seemed to have picked up volume through the night and came down in lashes as we made our way by cab to the Port of Naples to take a ferry to the famous Isle of Capri, immortalized in the song. No doubt, had we more time to dally in the Italian South, we might have postponed our excursion off shore. But with only a couple of days left to explore so extensive an area, we had little choice but to try our luck and hope that some form of transport would get us to Capri.

Caught in a Tornado at Sea:
As it turned out, our ferry ride to Capri was the beginning of many adventures. A 10 am ferry did take us across the dark and choppy waters as gigantic waves crashed over the sides and terrified me. Keeping my eyes firmly shut to avoid being panic-stricken and noting that there were no more than six other passengers on board, I alighted, forty minutes later, on the fabulous Isle of Capri where the weather seemed to have changed miraculously for the better. Gone were the frightful waves and the soggy skies. Capri was bathed in radiant sunshine and when we disembarked at Marina Grande, we found most people in upbeat mood, ready to begin their exploration of this classy island.

Heading towards the Tourist Information booth, we received helpful maps and guidance from a lady who spoke several different languages. It was she was directed us to a funicular train that climbed higher and higher up the steep escarpment offering stunning views of the turquoise seas below. At the top, merely ten minutes later, we found ourselves in the center of the town of Capri where a festive mood prevailed.

‘Downtown’ Capri:

Right in front of us was the Church of San Stefano and since it was, after all, Easter Sunday, I resolved to get in immediately to try to catch Mass and Holy Communion. I was delighted. Mass had only just begun but the church, like all the others I had entered throughout my travels in Italy, was ensconced by scaffolding as restoration was in progress. Still, the church was beautifully decorated with masses of spring flowers and their fragrance scented the air softly. Packed to the gills, men, women and children filled the pews and stood along the sides, splendidly attired in designer clothing. Gucci and Prada ruled the day as they went up for Communion making me feel exceedingly frumpy in my travel-weary jeans and well-worn coat. What an interesting experience that Mass was! Though in Italian, I could follow the main parts of it and was eager to participate. When it ended, we streamed out into a bright and sunny piazza, delighted to leave the storminess of Naples behind us.

There isn’t very much to see in Capri except for two or three main streets all of which radiate from the main square, each crammed with expensive luxury merchandise. Everyone in Capri seemed to be endowed with stacks of money for people walked around as if the place belonged to them. It was all a bit intimidating. Away from the posh stores and their well-displayed wares, a winding and very picturesque road goes by lovely old villas filled with well-manicured gardens and leads to the Augustinian Gardens, so-called because they were around in the time of Emperor Augustus. Already in spring bloom, it was a pleasure to walk through them towards the ledge of the mountain and to look down upon the churning seas that foamed like a white silk border on an aquamarine sari. (left) Just incredibly beautiful!
We could have stayed all day in that stunning enclave but decided to head towards the city center for a short ride by bus to Anacapri, the second town on the island. Once again, we passed souvenir stores stocked with limoncello made on the island from its own lemons, some as huge as footballs. Oranges, lemons and other citrus fruit grew almost wildly on the Isle of Capri and liberal samples of limoncello were served in many stores—not to mention complimentary sprays of locally-made citrus perfume. The stores also sold tons of lovely hand painted ceramic articles from bowls and platters to decorative centerpieces. Lemons and olives dominated as decorative motifs. Unable to resist the almond cookies and the mille feuille, an Italian pastry that literally means ‘a thousand leaves’ because it consists of layers of cream sandwiched between sheets of puff pastry, we munched on our goodies that were so astoundingly good I wished I had indulged in a few more.

Excursion to Anacapri:

Then, we were on a local bus climbing still higher to the other side of the island to the town of Anacapri (where Amy is seen at left) where hunger urgently led us to a small ristorante. There, we were determined to sample Insalata Caprese—the Caprisian Salad that was invented on the island—consisting of mozzarella cheese, freshly sliced tomatoes, onions and basil leaves, dressed lightly with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Ours came with fresh lettuce and together with the crusty Italian bread that is always served at every meal, we had ourselves a very satisfying light lunch indeed.
Back on our feet, we headed towards the ancient Church of St. Michael which has some remarkable majolica tile work on its floors. Alas, it was shut—the staff were probably enjoying their Easter lunch at home. Still, we did manage to enter another church very close by–the Church of San Sophia–which was small but very pretty indeed.

 Capri is also the base for exploring the famous Grotto Azurra or the Blue Grotto (left) where the quality of the light is so extraordinarily rare that small boats take visitors through a tiny opening into a cave where the walls reflect this iridescent blue. Again, the weather and the turbulent seas did not permit small craft to sail that day. Also disapppointing to us was the fact that the chair life that transports visitors up to the heights of Mount Solarno for striking views of the island and the Bay of Naples was also closed—just as well as the sea was rough and visibility was not very good beyond a few miles. The shops in the pretty town square at Anacapri begged to be explored and we were quite pleased to dally in them as Amy purchased some coral and pearl jewelry.

Our Adventurous Return to Naples: 

Then, we were on a bus headed for Marina Grande (left) from where we hoped to board the 5pm ferry back to Naples. No such luck! All ferry service to Naples was discontinued and the only possibility available was to take a ferry to Sorrento (a much shorter sail) in the hope of finding a bus that would take us back to Naples (as the Circumvesuviana train service had been shut down for the Easter Holiday). Needless to say, that ferry, probably the last one that day, was packed to capacity with many passengers seated along the stairs and floor determined not to be left behind at Capri for the night.
Our next adventure began when we arrived in Sorrento–only to find that no public transport was available to get us to Naples. Since we were in Italy, you can only imagine how eagerly the private bus operators hoped to serve us—at extortionary rates, of course. So there we were doling out 20 Euros each for a ride that normally costs 5! Did we have a choice? Not one in sight! So off we went on the bus, climbing the steep hill from the port to the main square called Piazza Tasso, a very chic and very trendy square that I hoped to explore the following day.
The bus ride back to Naples was thoroughly enjoyable. Perhaps it was relief at having found a safe way to get back to our hotel in Naples, perhaps it was the fact that the rain had, thankfully, stopped—perhaps it was just great to sit back and enjoy a ride after a day spent entirely on our feet. I don’t know what it was but the lights twinkling all along the curving Bay of Naples presented a spectacular sight as we drove along, arriving about two hours later at Piazza Garibaldi from where we made our way back home.
That night, we went to bed without dinner as every single restaurant and eatery was closed for Easter. We contented ourselves with gelato that was served at a small gelateria—never had ice-cream ever tasted so good!

To follow Amy and me on the next leg of our travels in Sorrento, Italy, please click on the link below.


Bon Voyage!